Federal Court Funding

Overview

The federal judiciary requires sufficient funds to perform the core functions assigned to it by the Constitution and Congress. These include adjudicating all cases filed in federal courts; supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release; providing representation for indigent defendants; securing jurors for jury trials; and ensuring the safety of all those who work at or enter federal court facilities. These are vast responsibilities that generate a workload over which the judiciary has no control. In 2014, over 440,000 cases were filed in district courts and courts of appeals; over one million petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; approximately 160,000 persons were placed under pre-trial or post-conviction supervision; and representation to indigent defendants was provided under the Criminal Justice Act in approximately 225,000 criminal cases.  

Deficit Reduction and the Courts

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, P.L. 112-25, provided a blueprint to reduce the federal deficit by over $2 trillion by the year 2021. Unpopular and politically contentious since its passage, the act resulted in across-the-board budget cuts in 2013, followed by reductions to the annual caps on discretionary spending (as well as automatic cuts to selected entitlement programs) in each year from 2014 through 2021. The law provides that failure to adhere to the budget caps in any designated year will trigger another across-the-board sequestration.

In FY 2013, sequestration reduced non-defense discretionary spending by five percent. The judiciary, like every other component of government, was subject to the mandatory sequestration, resulting in a $350 million funding cut, which constrained court operations nationwide. Throughout the year, budget negotiations continued to be contentious and resulted in a 16-day government shut-down. Congress finally resolved the budget battle for a short while by overriding the Budget Control Act and passing a two-year budget deal (P.L. 113-67) that significantly raised the discretionary spending caps for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. The judiciary benefitted both years.

A contentious year of budget negotiations that included a 16-day government shut-down culminated in Congress overriding the Budget Control Act and passing a two-year budget deal (P.L. 113-67)  that significantly raised the discretionary spending  budget caps for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. The judiciary benefitted both years.

In FY 2014, Congress restored the judiciary’s discretionary funding to its pre-sequestration level of $6.516 billion.

In FY 2015, Congress provided $6.7 billion in discretionary funding for the judiciary, a 2.8 percent increase over the prior year.

  • Additional information on deficit reduction and FY 2013–2015 funding is available here.

FY 2016 Request - $7.0 Billion in Discretionary Funding 

The White House, which released its budget on February 2, 2015, transmitted the judiciary’s FY 2016 budget request of $7.0 billion in discretionary appropriations without changes, as required by law. The judiciary is proposing a budget that is $264.5 million − or 3.9 percent − over its FY 2015 funding level. Seventy-nine percent of the requested increase is necessary for staff pay adjustments, inflation, and other adjustments to maintain current services. The other 21 percent ($11 million) will pay for program enhancements. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), “the request fully funds the Judiciary’s defender services program and includes a $6 rate increase above inflation to the non-capital panel attorney hourly rate, from $128 to $134. It also provides for a sufficient level of security at federal court facilities nationwide. Lastly, the Judiciary’s request will ensure that funds are available for criminal and civil jury trials, and will allow for an increase in the daily juror attendance fee by $10, from $40 to $50, the first such increase since 1990.”

  •  A breakdown of the budget request by account line is available here.

Prognosis

The judiciary’s budgetary concerns are far from over. Unless Congress agrees on an alternate deficit reduction plan, the Budget Control Act of 2011 will continue to lower discretionary spending caps through 2021. Even though Republicans, who are in control of both chambers of Congress, have demonstrated a strong commitment to fully funding the judiciary, their fiscal goals and spending priorities may threaten adequate funding for the courts. 

If Congress adheres to the BCA budget caps for FY 2016, domestic discretionary spending will be capped at $493 billion – a $ 21.1 billion cut from the Congressional Budget Office’s projected FY 2015 domestic discretionary spending of $514.1 billion. A reduction of this magnitude could result in a major setback in funding for the judiciary. 

While it is unlikely that Congress will go along with the president's proposal for ending the sequester in FY 2016 by closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and trimming certain discretionary and mandatory programs, it is unclear whether there will be a genuine attempt to replace the sequester with an alternative deficit reduction plan in this Republican-led Congress. Past efforts have revealed fundamental disagreements between the two parties over the appropriate approach. Democrats insist higher tax revenue must be part of the solution, while Republicans oppose a tax increase and are focused on slowing the growth of mandatory spending through an overhaul of entitlement programs. During the past three years, these deep-seated disagreements have derailed the appropriations process and hardened the partisan divide. There is little reason for optimism.  

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